Boost your health by spending time in nature

It's long been suspected time spent outdoors is good for us. Now science is proving it.

Nothing beats the feeling of getting back to nature with a walk in a park, along the beach or through the bush. There’s just something special about breathing fresh air and leaving the stress of work and life behind.

There’s now a growing body of evidence to support the assumption that spending time outdoors in the natural environment, away from man-made influences, has certain health benefits.

In one study, University of Michigan students were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group walked around an arboretum and the other walked down a city street. When the participants returned and did the test again, those who had walked among trees did almost 20 percent better than the first time. The ones who had taken in city sights did not consistently improve. Another, similar study of people with depression also found that walks in nature boosted working memory more than walks in urban environments.

A good way to recover from mental fatigue is to expose yourself to restorative environments, which means getting outside and into nature. One study found that people’s mental energy bounced back even when they just looked at pictures of nature (pictures of city scenes had no such effect). Studies have also shown natural beauty can elicit feelings of awe, which is one of the surest ways to experience a mental boost.

Another study found students who had spent two nights camping in the bush had lower levels of cortisol — the hormone often used as a marker for stress — than those who spent that same time in the city. Researchers have also found a decrease in both heart rate and levels of cortisol in subjects in the bush when compared to those in the city. Among office workers, even the view of nature out a window is associated with lower stress and higher job satisfaction.

Playing outdoors also has health benefits for both kids and adults, so make time in your day to get outside. Take a stroll in the park or at the beach. Plan a short hike on the weekend — nothing too strenuous, just a couple of hours on a nature trail. You’ll soon discover you’re feeling more relaxed and making a habit of spending more time outdoors.